Guthrie Govan talks Steven Wilson, Aristocrats, gear and guitar hero status

With both his highly individualistic guitar playing and instrument design, Guthrie Govan is shaking things up for players worldwide
With both his highly individualistic guitar playing and instrument design, Guthrie Govan is shaking things up for players worldwide (Image credit: Future PLC)

At the various guitar clinics he conducts, Guthrie Govan has a series of questions he likes to pose to attendees. "I find that knowing why you're playing helps to make all of the other questions disappear," he explains. "So I'll ask people things like, 'Why am I playing? What do I expect from my guitar playing? Do I want to be in a band? Do I want to write music? Do I want to be some YouTube god who just scares the other shredders?' These are all interesting things to consider."

Govan hesitates for mere seconds when asked to provide his own answers to the same questions. "I play because I can't help it," he says thoughtfully. "If you removed music from my life, there would be this huge gaping hole, and I couldn't think of anything else that I could use to fill that hole. I'm so used to music being one of the central driving forces in my otherwise unremarkable existence. I can't imagine not doing it."

Govan has been playing, he believes, since the age of three. "That's what they tell me," he says with a laugh. "I recall that I could always play a D chord; I grew up with it." And indeed, his performances through the years - on his 2006 solo album, Erotic Cakes; briefly as a member of Asia; with his own band The Aristocrats (which also includes drummer Marco Minnemann and bassist Bryan Beller); in a series of guest shots with acts such as Dizzie Rascal and The Young Punx; and lately, on Steven Wilson's album The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) and as a member of Wilson's touring band - would indicate that the guitarist possesses skills and instincts that are almost preconscious.

His ruthlessly individualistic approach to playing has extended to instrument design: over the years, Govan's relationship with Suhr Guitars has yielded three signature models built to his exacting specifications. Earlier this year, however, Govan made waves with the reveal of a yet-to-be-named Charvel prototype, leading to all sorts of speculation: Had the guitarist severed tied with Suhr? Is the prototype going to be a brand-new signature model, and would there be more?

While on tour with Wilson, Guthrie sat down with MusicRadar to explain where things are at with Charvel and to talk eruditely and at length about his attitudes on guitar playing, as well as what's in store for The Aristocrats.

As you must know, a lot of people are saying that you're the best guitarist on the planet right now. How do you respond to such accolades? And how do you keep such chatter from going to your head?

"It's flattering that people say nice things like that. Some of the compliments have even come from players who inspired me, and that means a lot. But I don't think it works like that. I don't think there is a 'best' guitar player in the world. People ask me at clinics, 'Who do you think is the best guitar player? Who's your favorite guitar player?' And I always reply, 'I know who my favorite Hendrix is.' [Laughs] Or 'I know who my favorite Django Reinhardt is.'

"Really, I think the goal is to find your unique thing and then spend the rest of your life competing with yourself, getting better at crystallizing whatever it is that makes your musical voice special. So I don't subscribe to the whole 'best or worst' thing. Guitar playing isn't a sport."

I do think, however, that when people heap such praise on a guitarist, they're really saying, "This guy is shaking things up. He's making a difference."

"In that case, all you can do is be grateful that people are responding to what you're trying to do. When people stop saying it, I'll have to get a proper job." [Laughs]

"The guitar is pretty much all there," Govan says of the prototype he's been collaborating with Charvel on. "There's a few subtle tweaks we're still working on." © Future PLC

Well, I don't think you'll be filling out an application at Starbucks anytime soon. OK, let's talk about the prototype of the Charvel guitar you've been playing. There's been a fair amount of confusion about what's going on. Can you clear things up for me?

"There's a limit to how much detail I can go into. I've worked with the Suhr guys for a few years, and I think we've achieved some things that were mutually beneficial. They're a great company, obviously. We reached a point where we thought it was best if we saw other people [laughs] - to put it in clumsy relationship terms. There's no animosity or weirdness there.

"The Charvel guys seem very proactive and keen to find out what I was looking for in a guitar and to see how awesome an instrument they could make - obviously, based on a lot of the things I had figured out through trial and error in my Suhr days. I guess, in some senses, we started with that template, but on a lot of stuff we went back to basics.

"With the pickups, they got Michael Frank-Braun, who did the Eric Johnson Signature pickups; he built some cool, unique pickups for me, based on essentially me rambling in my hippie way about how I wanted pickups to respond and how I wanted to listen to the strings, variations on pick attack and that sort of thing. He heard what I had to say and then went into his lab and came up with something quite cool.

"There isn't a signature guitar yet because we're still working on it; we're trying out different things and trying to make sure it's the most spectacular version of that guitar that it can be."

You've been playing the prototype on tour with Steven Wilson, so I imagine it's feeling pretty good.

"Oh, yeah. It sounds great, and the neck is ridiculously stable. That guitar has been through so many time zones in the past few months, and I've never had to adjust the neck. Little things like that you can only learn by taking the guitar on the road and punishing it. I've also been able to provide various fussy details about how the fretboard markers respond in different stage lighting conditions, and they seem very receptive to those things. The guitar is pretty much all there - there's a few subtle tweaks we're still working on."

Let's talk about your work on Steven Wilson's The Raven That Refused To Sing. He gave you fairly fleshed-out demos. How faithful did you remain to what he had recorded?

"The demos were so good that anyone else would have just released them as is - and probably would have won some awards. Steven can't make a terrible demo; it's not in his nature. He's one of those 'big picture' guys who focuses on every detail. He sent the demos out, and I think the basic plan was 'learn every little thing. Internalize it.' Once you do that, then you can explore it and take liberties.

"In the studio, Steven wanted to record live so he could capture that old-school, '70s fusion vibe of a band playing together live in a room, which is the only thing he couldn't get capture on his own because there aren't enough Stevens. [Laughs] There was some direction that I got from him. For the opening of Holy Drinker, he'd say, 'I want something jagged and intense,' and it was up to me to interpret that. Or the solo on Drive Home, he said, 'I'm hearing a soaring guitar solo,' and I'd have to do what I could with the word 'soaring.' There was stuff like that. I think we communicate very well."

What's it been like to play with Nick Beggs? Does the fact that he plays the Chapman Stick on a lot of songs impact what you do on the guitar?

"It hasn't changed what I do, no. But there are times where I find myself looking around and thinking, 'That's a cool noise. I wish my instrument could do that.' The Stick really is quite a different beast from a guitar or a bass. Nick has obviously spent quite a lot of time figuring out which things sound good."

What I like about your playing is that I don't hear the craft - I hear curiosity. You don't play the same thing twice, but you don't get into what we would call "noodling."

"Right. Well, if you think of music as a language, which it is, it feels as natural to me as speaking English. My station with the guitar is to imagine what I want to hear and speak that through the instrument. It's more fun for me to never play the same thing twice; I would get bored with a gig like that, where I had to perform the same sequence of notes perfectly night after night."

You grew up during the initial burst of the shred scene. You've attained the same level of virtuosity that is associated with shred, yet you've escaped the clichés.

"Obviously, there was a lot of it that I didn't like. One of the pivotal things that made a big difference to me was hearing Yngwie. I know it's de rigueur to have a dig at him, but he's a ridiculous guitar player. Every note he plays, he really sounds like he means it. He has the same intensity and passion that the blues guys have. The tone is great, the vibrato is great, the phrasing, but there's a musicality and fire. All the other people in the '80s who decided to 'become Yngwie' didn't have that forceful personality."

Did you ever try to do that "swing-the-guitar-around-your-neck-and-catch-it" move?

[Laughs] "No. But I do remember some kids at school trying that. I watched a guitar lose a strap button mid-flight. That would never happen to my instrument. But Yngwie made it OK to me to play that many notes. It's in my nature - I'm a skinny, twitchy, coffee-drinking character."

What about guitarists like Keith Richards or Neil Young, or even The Edge - have guys like that influenced what you do?

"The Edge I totally get. I really respect the 'guitar anti-hero' thing that he did - like it's possible to reinvent the instrument without necessarily knowing how to play it. He was driving technology in a major way. Likewise, Andy Summers, although Andy Summers does know what he's doing; he's very musically astute. Some of the stuff that he brought to guitar culture doesn't require tons of chops. I guess you could argue that Tom Morello has contributed in this area.

"It's funny that you mention Neil Young. For years, I loved the mournful, acoustic balladeer Neil Young, the Harvest period of his work, but I always used to wince when he'd get the Les Paul out and do the Bigsby thing with all the fuzz and the Fender amp turned to 11. 'Neil, why are you doing this? It sounds horrible!' But I had an epiphany when I saw him playing live at Hyde Park. He had the best guitar sounds ever. I realized that I was wrong to doubt him, and I completely understood why that's part of his musical voice."

You mentioned Tom Morello. You've dabbled in the marriage of rap and metal by playing with Dizzie Rascal.

"Yeah, I really do subscribe to that school of thought that says, 'There are only two types of music: good music and bad music.' I'll do anything if it's done well. If someone is serious, and they have something to say, the genre is just a detail. It's fun to do stuff like that. Dizzie is huge back home in the UK. Every time he releases a single, it automatically tops the charts. He's a big deal where I live.

"For one glorious summer, I was in that band, a 13-piece group with a horn section and some awesome backing singers. I got to play some disco bass, some funk guitar and some heavy metal fretless guitar - it was like missionary work. We were bringing this huge, unwieldy, extremely competent band to a lot of people who had probably never seen a real horn section."

The Aristocrats have a new album coming soon. What can you tell me about it?

"It's coming in mid-July, I think. On this album, we had similar motivations, I believe. Because we had spent almost two years playing together, we knew each other a lot better as humans and musicians. Each Aristocrat had a better idea about how to bring out the best in the other guys. We had a clearer idea about where the Venn diagram overlapped.

"We trust each other. We had the same formula: Each member would write three songs and e-mail the MP3 demo to the other guys. The deal was that we would meet up in the studio - and it was Nashville this time, which felt right - and we'd work out how to do it as a live trio.

"This time, everyone had a slightly different angle they wanted to pursue. I became interested in certain harmonic things: How big you can make a chord sound by combining what the bass is doing with what the guitar is doing? I'm trying to come up with stuff that isn't difficult, but maybe a few guitar-plus-bass chord voicing things that you don't hear all the time.

"Marco, for his part, decided that he was going to produce things more and have more overdubs. He's going for a lavish, expensive sound. Also, rather than some of the crazy, rhythmically complicated stuff he wrote for the last album, some of this is more like dance music. You only have to count to four, which is a departure. [Laughs] His whole thing was, 'How solid can I make this groove?'

"And Bryan kind of surprised us. I don't want to spoil it too much, but he came up with a couple of very extreme, unexpected tunes, which are a huge amount of fun to play live. In general, we're a lot happier with this album than we were with the first studio album. It's more diverse, and it showcases how we play together - and why we play together."

"I'm sure there are ideas that haven't occurred to me yet," says Govan, "and I look forward to those ideas occurring to me in the future." © Future PLC

What's great about you guys is how you seem to be blowing each other's minds - at the same time you're wowing an audience.

"Yeah, I'm really pleased if that comes across. We have an unreasonable amount of fun playing together. Every 20 seconds, I'll hear something from one of the other guys that just makes me smile, or it terrifies me. But it keeps you on your toes. We all play for the same reasons. The message isn't 'Check out our awesome chops and tremble'; it's more about us being able to play our instruments and having these cheeky conversations while doing so. I hope that all comes across.

"There's so much clever instrumental music that… it's a little bit cold. It's a little self-obsessed. I can understand why it's not the most popular genre of music. Hopefully, we're doing it in an honest way. But yeah, you're right - we are blowing each other's minds. Let's hope these trends continue."

Any difference playing with the Marco in Steven's band from the one in The Aristocrats?

"Yes and no. He's such a defined musical personality. This is true of him in all fields of life - he's always the same guy. He lives the way he plays, with this childlike exuberance. He has a way of bringing that to a piece of music without trampling on it, and it always sounds appropriate, because he's not a drummer - he's a musician.

"Marco will always be Marco. I guess the main difference with Steven's gig is that there's more structure, and there's certain things going on with the projection and the light show and those aspects. Everything has to run through some kind of click. You can't speed up if you get excited; you can't stretch a solo section out if it's feeling good on a certain night - there's a rigorous framework to these things. Within that framework, however, everybody in the band gets to be themselves."

What kinds of things can you not do on the guitar that you'd like to? Anything you especially want to improve about your playing?

"This will be an infuriating answer, but I don't know yet. [Laughs] That's not in a conceited, arrogant way, because I'm sure there are ideas that haven't occurred to me yet, and I look forward to those ideas occurring to me in the future, because it's an exciting thing when this light bulb goes off and you say, 'Hang on. That would be an exciting thing!' It should start with an idea, because if you're determined enough, you can usually find a way to approximate that idea using your instrument."

So it's not technical things you're chasing - it's more like concepts.

"Yeah. It might be a technical thing. It would depend; you'd have to hear this idea in your head and crystallize it and then say, 'What's missing from my current armory of technical things? What skills do I need to acquire to generate this new noise?' One thing I'd like to do is experiment more with effects and soundscape-type stuff. I'd like to contrast that to the raw guitar straight into a valve amp thing that I've done for so much of my life. I wouldn't claim to be a rocket scientist in terms of signal processing, so I could definitely get better at that.

"Another thing would be classical guitar. To me, that's just a different instrument. I couldn't pretend to be able to play classical guitar. You hand me one of those things, I start looking for my pick. [Laughs] I'm a complete imposter on anything with nylon strings."

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.